Whither the Texas Longhorns?
Head coach Tom Herman has his program sitting at 6-1 and in control of its Big 12 destiny in the midst of its bye week with five conference games remaining.
Win out, and the Horns could play in the Big 12 Championship game and the College Football Playoffs.
Unfortunately, while the polls have rewarded the Horns for going 1-0 each weekend since the season opener against the Terps with a No. 7 ranking, the advanced metrics don’t like Texas quite as much — S&P+ has Texas at No. 43 nationally.
As SB Nation stats guru Bill Connelly wrote this week, Texas is really two teams. The team that shows up against top-50 opponents in S&P+ with a 3-0 record and the team that shows up against weaker opponents with a loss and poor margins of victory:
- Average scoring margin vs. the top 50: plus-13.7
- Average scoring margin vs. the bottom 80: plus-3.5
Basically, S&P+ has no idea what to make of the Longhorns — as Connelly points out, “it says the Horns have a 20 percent chance of going 10-2 or better and a 15 percent chance of going 7-5 or worse.”
So, beyond any criticisms of the inputs into those advanced metrics, which are still dealing with some noise in terms of limited sample sizes and some of the odd results in the Big 12 and around the country, the clear takeaway here is that Texas can beat the best teams on its schedule, but could also lose to the worst teams on its schedule.
Again, as Connelly noted, that’s been Herman’s modus operandi throughout his career — the next big step for him as a head coach is to win convincingly against opponents that are considered overmatched instead of just competing against and often better highly-ranked opponents.
In that regard, the final five games will be extremely telling. Texas has finished this season in a way that Herman’s first Longhorns team did not last season in dropping a handful of close games. The ability to finish is currently difference between a baseline of the two convincing wins with major separation against USC and TCU and a record that sits at 6-1.
Before diving into the discussion of how the Horns can finish, let’s look at the numbers thrown out by Connelly’s metrics and use that as a basis to move forward, then use advanced metrics or more holistic evaluations to analyze each game.
At Oklahoma State
Evaluation: Advanced metrics
Not taking advantage of favorable projected margins against Kansas State and Baylor weigh heavily against Texas, even as Oklahoma State struggled in bad losses at home to Texas Tech and on the road against Kansas State.
So, despite those results, the Horns only have a 37-percent probability of winning, with an expected margin of nearly six points.
A deeper dive into the advanced metrics provides some perspective into how S&P+ views this game.
The first obvious takeaway is that the Oklahoma State offense is extremely explosive and productive — No. 12 in IsoPPP and No. 11 in Marginal Explosiveness. The Texas defense, meanwhile, is No. 91 in IsoPPP and No. 97 in Marginal Explosiveness. Meanwhile, the offense struggles in both of those categories, ranking No. 112 and No. 110.
Basically, the extremely reductive analysis here is that the metrics expect that the Horns won’t be able to stop the Pokes from producing explosive plays on offense and Texas won’t be able to produce enough explosive plays to win.
Evaluation: Advanced metrics
The most telling statistics here are the one-percent win expectancy in the game against Iowa State last weekend and the eight-percent percentile performance overall for West Virginia.
Afford head coach Matt Campbell and the Cyclones all the necessary credit for the game plan and execution that went in to that 30-14 victory last weekend, but the numbers say that the Mountaineers played about as poorly as possible.
Surely, the Longhorns coaching staff will see areas to exploit as a result of that game, but the bottom line is that Dana Holgorsen’s team has played between 77 percent and 88 percent of overall percentile performance all season — the loss last weekend wasn’t just a little bit of an outlier, it was an absolute outlier.
With West Virginia facing a bye week to correct the issues that became apparent in Ames, the Baylor game in Morgantown next weekend will provide some perspective on whether last weekend’s loss was as much of an anomaly as it seems.
At Texas Tech
Evaluation: Advanced metrics
From a holistic standpoint, the Red Raiders are playing better football than the Cowboys and Mountaineers at the moment, especially given the need to play for most of the last several weeks without starting quarterback Alan Bowman, the sensational freshman who emerged early in the season to vault the Texas Tech offense into the stratosphere.
With Bowman potentially returning from his collapsed lung this weekend, the outlook for the game in November looks much different than it would with Bowman sidelined.
When the freshman quarterback was healthy, the offense was playing at an extraordinarily high level, covering up for some weak efforts by the defense. But when the offense struggled against TCU last weekend, the defense played better than it had against any opponent other than Lamar.
Considering that the Red Raiders have the No. 25 special teams nationally and a turnover margin that is lower than expected, it seems that head coach Kliff Kingsbury is growing as a coach and providing his team with more margin for error by doing a better job across the board. Defensive coordinator David Gibbs definitely deserves some credit in that regard, too.
As a result, when the Horns travel to Lubbock in November, Herman and his team will face arguably the most complete Red Raiders team since 2008.
The rise of freshman quarterback Brock Purdy makes an evaluation of the Cyclones based purely on advanced metrics much more difficult. However, Purdy will also have to face the gauntlet of advanced scouting over the coming weeks, which could greatly complicate his rise — while Purdy looks like the real deal right now, defensive coordinators in the conference haven’t yet had a chance to fully identify and exploit his weaknesses.
Still, wide receiver Hakeem Butler is one of the most physically imposing matchups in the conference and running back David Montgomery breaks tackles like no other running back in college football.
Defensively, Jon Heacock’s group popularized the dime package approach utilizing cloud coverage that Todd Orlando adapted to help the Texas defense thrive in the spread-based Big 12 Conference.
Right now, the question in this game is whether the Longhorns can exploit whatever weaknesses emerge in regards to Purdy’s trajectory at quarterback or otherwise stymie an offense that has had plenty of struggles this season, especially on standard downs.
Evaluation: It’s Kansas, so, uh, holistic?
Throw out the advanced metrics here — just don’t blow this one in every way that it would take to blow a game against an overmatched opponent that may be on the verge of firing its head coach by that point.
Don’t go full Charlie Strong. Don’t go three quarters Charlie Strong. Avoiding going half Charlie Strong may be enough.
As Connelly mentioned, the metrics believe that this season could go extremely well for the Longhorns down the stretch or extremely badly, with quite a bit of middle in between.
The most likely scenarios have Texas reaching the baseline for a successful season back in August — eight wins — or reaching the more optimistic projection of nine wins.
After six straight wins, however, finishing 2-3 or 3-2 would be a disappointment for Texas, so Herman and his staff will have to continue to manage internal expectations while living up to external expectations that have increased throughout the season.
Not to mention avoid absolute collapse, which is possible given the close games against weak opponents. Last year, Herman’s first team didn’t respond particularly well to becoming bowl eligible by blowing the last regular season game against Texas Tech at home.
The optimistic hope now is to win out and potentially reach the College Football Playoffs. Winning four of the final five would be an impressive result.
Since anything less than four wins in the final five games would register as a disappointment, it’s clear that Herman is returning the standards in Austin to a high level as he seeks to take care of business better in games where Texas is favored, and continue to over-perform as underdogs.
The difference now is that while the advanced metrics may consider the Longhorns underdogs in some of the final five games, the oddsmakers may end up favoring Texas in each of the final five games.